Thursday, January 15, 2004

Mission to Mars.

Hey, I'm a science fiction fan - of course I support the space program. And I've never understood how we could go to the moon and then just... stop. But I don't think I'm just being a sour-grapes Democrat when I say that I don't trust these guys in charge of the mission.

In so many ways it's a typical-Bush ploy to get credit through exploiting a symbol, without promising much of substance. $12 billion in space funding!! ...of which only $1 billion is new money, which works out to less than a 2% increase in NASA's budget. The other $11 billion will be taken away from existing space programs - most of which, I understand, were not exactly overfunded to begin with. (It reminds me of his often-invoked promise of $15 billion for AIDS funding. He acknowledged himself that $5 billion of that money would be taken from existing AIDS programs, yet he consistently gets credited in the press for the whole $15 billion.)

Of course, as Calpundit points out, no one thinks we can get to the moon and Mars with $12 billion dollars. Bush Senior's administration estimated the total price would be around $500 billion - and that was fifteen years ago. Bush will get the credit for his bold visionary strategy, and some poor President and Congress down the road will have to figure out how to pay for it - just as they'll be figuring out how to pay for his Medicare prescription drug bill and his tax cuts, both of which also delay their full impact until after he leaves office.

I know that at least one space scientist reads my weblog, so I have to ask... Bush says:
"Lifting heavy spacecraft and fuel out of the Earth's gravity is expensive. Spacecraft assembled and provisioned on the moon could escape its far lower gravity using far less energy and thus far less cost."
My question: does this even make sense? The way I figure it, if we're going to build the Mars vehicle on the moon, that means we'll have to ship all of the raw materials for the Mars vehicle, all the equipment used to build it, either all the fuel to power it or all the refinery equipment needed to extract and process fuels from the moon (I don't even know if that option is possible, but Bush says it might be), and all of the workers involved in building it - plus everything needed for those workers' life support. How can that be cheaper and more energy-efficient? Am I missing something?

I know that low-gravity space shipyards appear with great regularity in science fiction, but I don't see how they can possibly be superior to earth-based construction unless you're building an entire fleet and thus getting economies of scale - or unless you're establishing a full colony, such that all of those people would be up there and developing industries anyway.